Jake and I did some scouting in the circle today. Neither of us had been to the lookout since the Murphy Complex burn in June 2011, so that was our main target.
But first we had to check out the White Rock Campground area just upstream from Peña Blanca Lake and whip out one of our secret weapons: bird seed. I searched for a good spot to spread a few pounds of mixed grass, red millet, and canola seed where birds would be visible from a short distance, yet close enough to cover that they would come down to the ground with a sense of safety. The location I chose was below the left side of the road (as you're headed west), under a thicket of hackberries, just as you reach the first pipe fence that extends east from the corral at the turnoff into the campground. We birded around here for a bit and discovered two of Atascosa Highland's winter specialties: Hepatic Tanager and Elegant Trogon. There were also lots of Chipping Sparrows, with a few other species, including Dark-eyed Juncos mixed in.
Then we did the hike up to the peak, stopping where there were still some trees. Much of the brush was gone, and most of the juniper-pinyon near the peak completely wiped out. Gone are the Crissal Thrashers and Western Scrub-Jays. Here's a view looking west towards Baboquivari Peak, with the nice woodland at the Sycamore Canyon trailhead just barely visible as a dark area at the far left-center part of the photo. This particular patch of burnt forest was good for wintering Townsend's Warbler and Scott's Oriole, but no longer.
This is up at the very peak looking northeast, with the Santa Rita Mountains in the distance at the far right. The biggest peak on the left is Atascosa Peak, and the sharp one just right of center is Ramanote Peak, both of which are in the circle. Before the fire, the close ridge low center was a dense, impenetrable thicket of manzanita, silktassle, mimosa, oak, pinyon, and juniper. Now it is mostly grassland.
The main advantage of the trail is no longer the forest at the top, but it still offers the best access to the upper reaches of Ramanote and Bellota Canyons. I'm hoping this year someone will want to cover these, getting dropped off here and hiking down the canyons to meet up with the crews driving up from below who are covering the lower stretches at the eastern perimeter of the circle. Let me know if you're into such a hike, and I can give some GPS coordinates or even a route.